Susan Rundell Singer applies learning science to distance education

Susan Rundell Singer thinks educators should be “learning engineers.” That means they need to understand the science of learning.

“Whether teaching online or face-to-face, the goal is to maximize students’ understanding,” says Singer, a professor of biology and cognitive science at Carleton College and the division director for undergraduate education at the National Science Foundation. “Applying what is known about instructional strategies, problem solving, use of representations, and conceptual change can increase the effectiveness of the learning experience.”

Susan Rundell Singer engaging students in scientific research.
Susan Rundell Singer engaging students in scientific research.

Singer will discuss the practical applications of learning science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, held on August 11-13 at Monona Terrace. Along with Sharon Derry, professor of experiential learning at the University of North Carolina, Singer will discuss “Applying Learning Science Research to Distance Education Practice.”

“Effective educators need a rich mix of content and pedagogical knowledge,” Singer says. “Understanding how students learn in general, knowing the priorities and ways of knowing within the discipline, and leveraging strategies that build students’ intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are all part of the mix. Educators also need expertise in measuring and assessing their students’ understanding, and that includes far more than assessing mastery of basic content.”

The 2015 Distance Teaching & Learning Conference will address the latest developments in distance education: learning that takes place completely or partially outside a regular classroom setting. Leading experts such as Singer, Derry, Marc Rosenthal, and Marc Prensky will explore radical transformations in the way people learn in higher education, in industry, and in the military.

Moving toward expertise

Singer emphasizes the need to engage students in their own learning—the approach known as “active learning.” When it comes to distance education, she says, simply showing a video of an instructor talking for 50 minutes doesn’t cut it anymore.

“We know from the research that students can become more expert-like in solving problems in a discipline when they are working with peers. Talking with a fellow student or thinking aloud promotes ‘metacognition’—making one’s thinking visible. That strategy enhances learning. Structuring problems with steps and prompts that challenge but don’t overwhelm students with complexity moves them toward expertise.”

Students benefit from working on problems before they come to class, Singer says, and this strategy can be adapted to distance education.

“Encountering the problem in advance of the instructor talking about it has been shown to increase the learner’s ability to later apply their new understanding. This approach can be used in a completely online environment with interspersed video clips or in a hybrid-learning environment. As far as stepping students toward a solution, the beauty of the online environment is that it can generate data about the students’ learning so the instructor can iteratively increase or decrease the stepwise challenge.”

Singer looks forward to presenting at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, as well as learning more herself.

“For me, the very best part of the conference is to meet new people and to learn,” she says. “I have the privilege of speaking to a broad range of individuals engaged in improving undergraduate education throughout the country. Understanding where there are pockets of expertise and helping connect inspired thinkers and doers who can do even more together is particularly satisfying.”

For more information about the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, contact Les Howles, lhowles@dcs.wisc.edu, 608-265-9753.